The Common Starling triggers fear and loathing in many, but this under-appreciated beast in the beautiful Starling family elicits profound awe, almost reverence from a few.
How can we respect and appreciate such a beast that forages for food under-foot at sidewalk cafés?
By Rex Graham
Other starlings are appreciated, not reviled. We love the Violet-backed Starling of Africa and the other 200 or so members of the starling family.
Many have snow-white feathers or dark shades of iridescent black, blue and purple plumage. They are crowd favorites in zoo aviaries. The Common Starling seem very plain by comparison, however the male’s black body feathers tipped with white are actually beautiful. The white tips mostly disappear by the breeding season.
Horror or Gorgeous
In the collective imaginations of urban dwellers in North America and Europe the Common Starling comes to us from a Hitchcock horror film. Our perceptions are wrong.
Starlings, particularly Common Starlings, are surprising scientists who study the roots of human language. They also dazzle onlookers in northern Europe with their synchronized, swarming ballets in the evening sky.
Aside from their aerial exploits, one of the most dumbfounding features of the Common Starling is their vocalizations.
They emit complex patterns of whistles, warbles, rattles and squawks. It’s not noise. They mimic other birds and even burglar alarms.
The unique songs of individuals may help establish dominance hierarchies at roosting sites to create peaceful organization.
The Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), a close relative of the Common Starlings, is sometimes called Amethyst Starling. The colorful species is found throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert.
Like all starlings, the Violet-backed is omnivorous, gregarious and a strong flier. It exploits the trees of “edge” habitats, which are created by patchy deforestation, human settlements and agriculture.
Uganda Birding Tour Bonus Species
Birding tours in Uganda in August provide great opportunities to see the Violet-backed Starling, Shoebill, and hundreds of other birds. Shelley’s Crimsonwing, one of Africa’s rarest finches, can also be seen if you know where to look in Uganda’s Albertine Rift Mountains.
Superfast Starling Muscles
William Shakespeare, who mentioned starlings in his writings, would be impressed by the discoveries of 21st century scientists. They have discovered human-like linguistic talents, including the starling’s ability to modulate sound faster than ordinary vertebrate muscles are able to contract.
“Superfast muscles were previously known only from the sound-producing organs of rattlesnakes, several fish and the ringdove,” Coen Elemans, an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, said in a news release. “We now have shown that songbirds also evolved this extreme performance muscle type, suggesting these muscles – once thought extraordinary – are more common than previously believed.”
There’s more. About 10 years ago, University of California, San Diego scientist Timothy Genter surprised himself when he discovered that Common Starlings recognize “recursive center-embedding” of phrases in their songs.
For example, humans can easily modify “Oedipus ruled Thebes” into the grammatically correct “Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes,” or “Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes,” and so on.
Starlings in Genter’s lab learned that they could earn a treat by picking out recursive patterns of rattles and warbles (equivalent to words) in various syntactic arrangements.
“They had learned the abstract patterns and not just memorized the specific songs,” Genter said in a news release summarizing one of his papers in the British journal Nature. “Our research is a refutation of the canonical position that what makes human language unique is a singular ability to comprehend these kinds of patterns.”
Information-gathering Starling Flocks
Even the mysterious flocking behavior of starlings is based on higher-order abilities discovered by scientists at the University of Warwick (U.K.).
Each flocking bird reacts to a pattern of light and dark seen through the flock. They rapidly process that information to help them achieve the necessary density of birds. We see this ability in their “dynamic and changing silhouette,” the Warwick researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National (U.S.) Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The scientists were able to duplicate a flock’s behavior in a computer model by simulating birds that were attracted to the areas in the flock that could provide the most information on the rest of the flock.
The discovery reported in 2014 in PNAS marked “a paradigm shift in our understanding of how birds organize within a flock as it shows that the local interactions between birds are alone insufficient to explain large-scale flock organization.”
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, and study Common Starlings, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.
More Starlings & relatives
Female birds in the families of warblers, manakins, starlings and other songbirds are lovely, but the most of the males are much prettier.
The Common Scaly Thrush, an inhabitant of Nepal’s species-rich forests, in the evening signing a melodious “pur-loo-trii-lay” and other calming tunes.
The Malabar Whistling-thrush uses UV-reflecting feathers and high-pitched whistles to be seen and heard in India’s lush and noisy forests. .
Asian Verditer Flycatchers and Daurian Redstarts have adopted opposite strategies to cope with foreign eggs laid in their nests by cuckoo egg parasites.